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Pop'pea

PARIS
Théâtre du Châtelet
5/31/12

The notion of transforming Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea into a rock opera — Pop'pea — was one of Châtelet director Jean-Luc Choplin's ideas to bring new audiences to opera.  The theater warned the public that Pop'pea was a full-frontal rock experience, perhaps fearing that Early Music fans would storm the Châtelet, brandishing viols and theorbos in Baroque fury. On May 31, this groundbreaking event did not play to a full house: rock fans were intimidated by the mention of Monteverdi and opera lovers stayed away, perhaps to avoid potential musical heresy.

Michael Torke was chosen to provide the musical adaptation of the score, with additional material provided by guitarist Max La Villa.  Ian Burton, a regular contributor of director Robert Carsen, provided the libretto for the production, which was staged by Giorgio Barberio Corsetti and Pierrick Sorin. Burton omitted allegorical characters to achieve a streetwise drama set in downtown ancient Rome. The English was rough and rapping, with expletives thrown around with abandon. Some of the song lyrics were stilted and did not fall off the tongue fluently, but others struck home with a contemporary luv-ya-baby reality.

Musically, all preconceptions of Monteverdi had to be laid aside as the heavy metal drum beat and electric guitars tore into Monteverdi's themes over the band's insistent rhythmic charge. Best moments were Octavia's farewell to Rome — here a touching rock ballad performed with piping charm by Fredrika Stahl — and the opening of Act II,  in which the celebratory duet between Nero and Ottone became a sort of freestyle rock orgy with jazzy scat coloratura. French star Benjamin Biolay brought dashing style and authority to Ottone, but was hampered by the English dialogue, which sounded more Maurice Chevalier than Boy George.  Carl Barât's Nero had a slouchy rocker's indifference to the proceedings, but captured brilliantly the mad monarch's deviant sexual appetite and his journey to the final obsessive duet. 

The experienced soprano Valérie Gabail has sung the role of Poppea in something nearer the composer's version, and therefore brought a more classical touch to her performance, including a sweet version of Arnalta's lullaby — assigned to Poppea in Burton's version, which has no nurses or attendants. The long suffering Drusilla was convincingly portrayed by Anna Madison, but best of the rock stars was Soft Cell's Marc Almond, who sensed the isolation of Seneca's stoicism and seemed interested in exploring the hybrid vocal possibilities the show offered. A special mention is also deserved for the pizazz of the rapping soldiers, Achilles 'AC' Charrington and Marcus 'Matic Mouth' Smith.

The production combined Baroque bikers and clear storytelling with a sense of rock improvisation, helped by the witty pastiche costumes of Nicola Formichetti, designer for Lady Gaga. Sorin's technically brilliant video techniques, which were so impressive here in La Pietra del Paragone, were more apt for the sophisticated wit of Rossini than this gritty Rock realism, to which they added little.

In the pit the former drummer of The Clash, Peter Howard, made an impressive musical director – his majestic rhythmic security on the drums was to be expected, but his sensitive musical gestures were surprising. However a rock opera plays uneasily in a formal Italianate theatre – Parisian rockers should have been on their feet and vocal, indulging in behavior nearer to an operatic audience of Monteverdi's time. spacer

STEPHEN J. MUDGE

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